The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Latest "Neuroscience" Posts

“I’m trying not to be worried. It will be fine.”

If I said it once, I said it a hundred times.  I said it to my friends. I said it to my work colleagues. And most importantly, I said it to myself. Looking back, I thought I was being positive.  “It will all be fine.” But my brain heard, “worried” over and over and over again. So my brain gave me worry.

Words matter.

As an insightful leader, the words you say to yourself are more impactful than the words you say to others. The words you say to yourself color your outlook, your demeanor and the way you show up to others. You can use your words to create the impact you want.

I attended the Align Retreat this weekend in Oregon with Chris West ( During that retreat I was reminded of the power of words. We were encouraged to write down the type of life we want and design a business that supports it. If I don’t want to worry, then what do I want? After learning tips and receiving tools, I realized that growing a business didn’t have to be hard.  It could be easy.  That’s it!  Easy. Like they say at Staples, “Just press the Easy button.™” Those are the new words that I feed my brain.

How are you using words to get what you want? Try these three steps:

  1. Choose positive words. Choose positive words that reflect the state of mind you want rather than the state of mind you don’t want. Instead of saying, “I’m not ________” say “I am _______.” Leave the “not” behind. Your brain responds to the words you say repeatedly. Whether it’s worry, easy, hard, peaceful, or frustrated, your brain creates what you tell it. Next time you’re tempted to say, “I’m so frustrated that this process didn’t work,” pause, rethink and choose differently, “Okay. That didn’t work. Here’s a chance for a new approach.” Focus on creating a new approach. What state of mind do you want to be in? How can you state it positively? Leave the “not” behind.
  2. Repeat and repeat again. The brain pays attention to repetition. The more you state something, particularly out loud, the more likely your brain will pay attention. You train your brain. It’s like learning to hit a golf ball, paint with watercolors, or speak in front of a group. Practice makes each time a little easier. It’s the same with words. The more you say positive words, intentionally, the more your brain embeds it.  This is why mantras work.
  3. Reminders. Have you tried to change a habit? You made a good effort briefly but fell back into the same, old pattern? It’s understandable because the old way is easier for the brain. That’s why you need reminders to force you and your brain to remember the new words. In my case, I ordered an “Easy” button.™ It’s being delivered as I write. I plan to surround myself with reminders that work can be easy. What will remind you of the positive words you choose? The more reminders, the more likely you are to reinforce the positive words and the more likely you are to believe them.

Words matter. Choose yours carefully and positively. Leave the “not” behind. Surround yourself with reminders. It’s like pressing the Easy button.™

Copyright: 123render / 123RF Stock Photo

“There’s no place for feelings at work!” I heard it frequently as a young engineer. Thankfully, I learned this admonition was impossible to achieve and very bad for my career. Today, after interviewing 76 effective leaders, it is clear that the skillful use of feelings is essential to leadership success. To deny feelings is to deny a key part of your intelligence. To use feelings is not about being carried away by each whim or passing flutter in your gut. It’s about having the self-awareness to discern the source of the feeling and how to constructively put it to work as a leadership asset.

Here are five skilled ways that leaders use their feelings that merit attention and practice.

1. Emotional feelings are red flags. Your nervous system is a sophisticated sensing network. Over time, your brain became hard-wired to know situations or events that run counter to what it believes it best for you. Your body, via the nervous system, picks up the warning signs and launches a red alert. Your body will hijack your brain with an old story. Left unchecked, your brain will generate a knee-jerk reaction that is unlikely to benefit your career. Effective leaders learn to recognize when an emotional feeling is coming. They develop the skills to slow down the knee-jerk reaction and rebalance the nervous system so that the cognitive brain has time to catch up. Techniques such as relaxing the face, breathing deeply or counting to ten can buy just enough time to engage the brain. This key skill allows you to separate productive feelings from those that are emotionally reactive.

2. Feelings alert you to issues you might otherwise miss. I heard it over and over from leaders. When faced with a difficult decision, leaders paid attention to their own hesitation. “Something is bugging me.” “This is just not sitting right.” They described a nagging feeling that was….well, nagging. Effective leaders pay attention to that feeling. Then they dig in. What is the feeling? Where is it telling me to probe further? What other questions should I ask? They don’t necessarily seek more data. Instead they seek more insight about the context or impact of the decision. The nagging feeling points the way to issues that transcend mountains of data.

3. Feelings align decisions with values. Effective leaders are clear on their values and principles. These values ground their decision-making. Complex decisions frequently have great latitude and range of choice. Without values, it is hard to chart a course through an open sea of options. Leaders describe searching for and trusting in the decision that is in alignment with their value system – the decision that “just feels right.” They also point out the importance of having a personal value system that aligns with the company culture. In that case, they trust their feelings to guide them to the best solution for the company and for them.

4. Feelings point to the higher goal. Early in my career, I over-thought everything (before my recovery began). Every career choice was agony. Should I or shouldn’t I? Is now the best time for a change or later? Is this the best next step or not? Over and over the options tumbled in my mind. In one instance, by boss called. Others asked that she call and ask me to stay. Instead she said, “Follow your heart.” Over time, I learned to check in with and trust my feelings. My gut seems to instinctively know the choice that is best suited for me at a particular time. My biggest career decisions were made from the gut. It required courage and trust…and a lot of hard work, but each instance brought success and life-changing experiences. My boss was right. Today, my heart points to goals and my head manages the steps to reach it.

5. Feelings underpin authentic communication. What is it about some leaders that make them seem more attentive and more human? Research shows that leaders who are better listeners are viewed as having more charisma. These leaders do more than listen for facts, dates, and results. They listen for and hear feelings. They pick up on the atmosphere in the room, the tone of voice, the comfort or discomfort of the other person. They validate discussion content and feelings – proud, frustrated, exhausted, striving. It’s the feeling that makes real communication happen between person to person instead of from boss to employee.

The next time you try to push your feelings aside…stop. Consider the wisdom they bring, unravel their message and put them to work to create more effective leadership.

We were in Mikki William’s speaker school. The room was filled with accomplished professionals from a variety of businesses, each there for their unique reasons. One was Barbara. Tall and striking, Barbara’s goal was to overcome her anxiety about speaking. On day two, each of us were to stand in front of the room and tell a story using the techniques Mikki taught us. It was Barbara’s turn.  She demurred.  “No,” she said. “I’m not comfortable and my heart is pounding.  Besides, I don’t have a story to tell.”

“Oh yes you do!” we all replied. “You can do this!”  And she did.

Nervously, Barbara stood in front of a room full of accomplished business people and told her story. Her story? It was about her anxiety around speaking this morning.  First, she had asked her husband what story to tell. “Tell them about your trip to Panama and what happened there,” he said. She didn’t think that story was appropriate. She asked her best friend, “You should definitely tell them about Ecuador. They’ll love that one!”  No. She didn’t like that one either. She mused about telling us her experience dog sledding.  None seemed like the best story.  Instead, she told us a story about not having a story. It was masterful. By the time she finished, we were engaged, laughing, and on our feet. And, she taught us about bravery.

As insightful leaders, you will face situations that make you feel uncomfortable and unsure. In those moments:

  1. Gather support from others. Talk about the challenge to people that you trust, just as Barbara sought input from those close to her. Whether she took their suggestions or not, talking generates ideas in your own mind. It helps you see perspectives that you may not otherwise notice. Those discussions give you time to reflect.  Depending on your situation, you may not wish to talk to those within your organization. Use your network of peers as a safe place to engage in dialog about new and unsettling challenges.  Mikki works with Vistage which provides this type of environment for senior staff and executives.
  2. Own the discomfort. Barbara never tried to hide her discomfort. She owned it. Studies in neuroscience show that acknowledging fear and uncertainty help calm the threat response in the brain more effectively than denying the unease. I recommend talking to yourself about the discomfort. “What is it about this situation that makes me feel uncomfortable?” “Why am I hesitating?” Unravel your feelings by probing and naming them. As my friend says, “Name it to tame it.”
  3. Step into it anyway. Take a deep breath, decide on your first step and take it. There’s nothing like action to quell uncertainty. I have a quote on my wall that says, “Fear fades in the face of action.” Each step forward creates more and more certainty. Maybe the situation will go great and maybe it won’t. In either case, you grow and learn for the next time.  Because, as an insightful leader, there will always be a next time.

Mikki’s speaker school was an excellent learning environment for speaking, business and, unexpectedly, bravery. Thank you to Barbara for modeling bravery in action.  I don’t know about you, but I want to hear about dog sledding!

Copyright: shalamov / 123RF Stock Photo

It was the night of the lighted boat parade in our neighborhood of Eastport. The boat parade, sponsored by the Eastport Yacht Club, is a regular event that draws spectators who line the shoreline and bridge around the three sides of the harbor. The boats – dressed as angels, Santa’s sleigh, the Grinch, and more – parade in a circle around the harbor. This year, I was on a friend’s boat moored inside the circle serving hot food and drinks to the boats who work behind the scenes to ensure safety. Consequently,  we saw the opposite side of all the decorated boats.

We pointed and clapped at each lighted boat from our deck, bundled up with snow flakes falling. Sailboats make excellent Christmas trees and there was one coming into view. Puzzled, one of our crew mused, “Why does that boat say, ‘Oh oh oh?’” It didn’t. From the perspective of the spectators, it said, “Ho ho ho!” but from our side, it looked like “Oh oh oh.”

And that’s the way it is at work. An insightful leader knows that there are many perspectives available aside from the obvious one.  It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and fall for the same viewpoint each time but that doesn’t bring creativity or innovation.  An insightful leader seeks out alternative perspectives to inform their decision. Here are three tips to cultivating that alternative perspective.

  1. Put yourself in other’s shoes. We say this all the time but it’s surprisingly difficult to do. We’re not in someone else’s shoes; we’re in ours. It takes considerable cognitive energy to convince your brain to look at a situation or decision from another view point. To do so, make an effort to think about the person(s) on another side of the situation or decision. What is their background? What are their interests? What work experience do they have that color their perspective? What hot button issues are you aware of? It’s only when you force this level of thinking that you come close to putting yourself in other’s shoes and seeing a new perspective.
  2. If not this, then what? When your staff brings a recommendation to you, note if it is a standard recommendation – something that you would expect. This would not be surprising. The brain is designed to take the easiest (lowest energy) path which is to do what it’s done before. To force a new perspective, say, “Thank you for the recommendation. Now, let’s assume that this course of action is not available to us. What would we do then?” By taking the tried-and-true option off the table, you force new thinking.
  3. Ask others. The insightful leaders that I interviewed were skilled at asking others for input. It helped them see other perspectives. When you seek out the opinions of others, don’t ask what they would do. Instead ask: “How would you approach this problem?” “What factors would you consider in the decision?” “What are other ways you’ve seen this situation addressed?” These questions evoke a broader, more thoughtful response that is more likely to provide new options for your consideration.

Whether it’s within your work, your community or your family, there’s value in making an effort to see other perspectives. And nationally, in this time where it seems that divisiveness flourishes and there is little effort to understand alternative viewpoints, perhaps we can all take a moment to find appreciation and respect for our differences and similarities.

After all, “oh oh oh” and “ho ho ho” are just two sides of the same boat.

Egg nog‘Twas the holiday season…and family dynamics are taking a toll. There are the folks you see often and those less regularly. Some relationships are easy and welcome. Others …well, other relationships may grate on your nerves. Let’s face it, some family members seem to have a knack for hitting your hot buttons and setting off triggered reactions–—easily and often. And yet, it’s a season to enjoy good cheer and egg nog. Here are four tips for resourcing yourself to remain cheerful without a punch-bowl full of egg nog as reinforcement.

Identify your expectations beforehand. I learned this technique years ago and, honestly, it has been a life-saver. Before a family or social event, I think about my expectations.  What would I like to get out of the occasion? For example, I may want to spend quiet time with a distant cousin whom I haven’t seen in years, and not be drawn into group caroling. Without this knowledge beforehand, when pressed to go caroling, my body would tense and I would likely react more harshly than necessary. Clarifying expectations in advance allows you to prevent misunderstandings before they take place.

Before your next event, try this: Ask yourself what the family event will be like in your ideal world? How will it unfold? Who will you spend time with? What will you do and not do? Now share that information with your spouse, partner or friend. And listen to their ideal scenario. Together you provide mutual support and you are more likely to have a positive experience.

Think about who and what will be triggers. Many of our triggers or hot buttons are known and repeatable: “If Aunt Harriet tells that same story about the turkey again, I’ll scream!” “You know that Cousin Jim is going to spend all evening talking about his investment skills.” “I can’t bear another of Ann’s discussions about government conspiracy theories.” Whatever the story, you already know it because it happens every year and every year it is annoying. This year, prepare in advance. What are the people, situations and issues that trip your trigger? How will you handle it when it comes up again? Maybe you can simply walk away to refill a drink, get a snack or find someone else to talk with. Maybe you can make a light joke that deflects the discussion to another topic (“Ha, ha, Ann! As if the government is organized enough to create a conspiracy!”). I remember that for one event, my late husband and I had a code word. If either of us became frustrated with a conversation, we’d work in the word, “pineapple.” That was code to provide the other person with an exit strategy. Whatever your technique, it works best when you proactively identify triggers in advance.

Create a calming toolkit for use in that environment. You can’t predict every situation but you can create your own personal toolkit of calming techniques to use in the moment. For example, when I need a brief respite, I simply walk outside for a few breaths of fresh air and a moment to reflect on nature. You may be able to let your mind wander to pleasant thoughts when the conversation goes in an uncomfortable direction. Bathrooms are havens of quiet in the hub-bub of a loud, high-energy event. I confess to loitering a bit longer than necessary to catch my breath, center myself, take some deep breaths and reconnect with my expectations. Find the techniques that provide you with those few, precious moments to come back to yourself.

Take time for yourself. Even during (particularly during) intense family events, it’s important to take time for yourself. I’m fortunate that to have experienced understanding when I said, “I’m going to sit in the corner for a few minutes and read my new novel.” Most people respect the space you need to recharge. This is especially important for those of us who are introverts and need quiet to replenish our energy. Make a commitment to yourself to carve out a bit of time to be with you and only you. What is your plan — read, go for a short walk, listen to music, nap? When might it fit into the rhythm of the day? Let your spouse, partner or family member in on the plan so that they are not surprised when you retreat and regroup. When you emerge, your energy will be higher and you will be more present for everyone else.

The holidays are a special time to connect with friends and family. Take a few moments to resource yourself to remain merry and bright. It will make the time together even better and you can enjoy the egg nog, too.

Happy holidays to all…and to all a good night.


Rain. All day. Grey and dreary.

Yay! I love a rainy day. Why would anyone find a damp, overcast day appealing? Here’s what I observe:

On a rainy day, the to-do list is shorter because some things can’t be done or are less convenient in the rain. I focus my attention more on a rainy day.

A rainy day feels refreshing as if the world is clean and less cluttered.

A rainy day has a slower pace. I’m more likely to read a book, take a nap, and think new thoughts.

So how do I transfer these observations from a rainy day to a regular work day?

Focus. Shorten the to-do list and focus. Not everything has to be done today or done by me. Let’s all take a moment and remove a few things from the list. We are left with less to do and more room to get them done. Send the other tasks to someone else or delete them entirely. Admit it, we all have something on the list that’s been there for ages. It can’t be THAT important if it’s still waiting to be done.

Declutter. Every item—pen, note pad, stack of papers, random business cards, another stack of papers, a book, an iPad—adds clutter to your world and to your mind. The brain uses small bits of energy to scan, process and label as irrelevant each of those items. That activity drains your brain power that you could use for productive tasks. Take a moment and organize the desk and the work space around you. Declutter and observe that your productivity increases.

Slow down. Now that you are more  focused and decluttered, you can slow the pace and do higher quality work – work that is thoughtful, considered and insightful. Most of us live in a frantic world. Those few who offer insight – insight that required astute observation – stand out. Who has time to think or think differently? You do. That’s who. But only with focus, less clutter and a slower pace. It’s during the slowness that the brain makes new, innovative connections. It’s where we find an aha-moment.

I confess that it’s hard for me to focus, declutter, and slow down. In the last few years, I trained myself to be at a frenetic pace. I’m not the only one. You know who you are! But we can retrain ourselves. I’ll give it a try if you will.

Imagine the rain. Focus on one or two things; remove everything else from sight, take a breath, settle your brain….and let your mind wander slowly. Allow the insight to come. It will be worth it.

Copyright: giedriusok / 123RF Stock Photo

“You’re doing what?” The question came from my girlfriends during our morning run. I had explained my plan to attend a weekend meditation retreat. It wasn’t the meditation retreat they reacted to. It was the plan: Friday night concert (we already had tickets); Saturday morning drive five hours to the retreat (it started at 9am); meditate all day; Sunday fly across country for a business meeting. All this so I could relax.

“No. You will not do that.” One of the girls insisted. The remarkable thing is that it took their perspective to convince me that, once again, I was over-doing it. The idea was good – to slow down – but I didn’t see the big picture. Their reaction caused me to pause and remember what I already knew about energy balance but had shoved aside.

Clearly, knowing and doing are not the same things. Here is my refresher course:

1. Know your energy profile. We all have it–the time of day when we’re at our best. For many people, it’s in the morning. But not for everyone. I’m a morning person and I do my best work in the morning…in the quiet. My friend writes and creates at night long after I’m snoozing. And don’t even call her before 11am. When are you at your peak performance? What time of day does your energy peak…morning, afternoon, evening?

 2. Recognize your energy drains and fillers. Each day starts with some amount of energy in your tank. Throughout the day you constantly fill up or drain away that energy. Energy fillers make you overflow with vim, vigor and vitality. Energy drains are activities, people or situations that sap your strength. Perhaps you procrastinate and mutter, “This just takes all my energy.” And you’re right! What activities fill or drain your energy?

As you read the following list, take note of subtle shifts in how you feel:

• Reading a book
• Listening to music
• Going dancing
• Hosting a party
• Attending a large networking event
• Going for a run
• Practicing yoga
• Meeting friends at a lively bar for drinks
• Meeting your best friend at a quiet restaurant
• Participating in a large conference
• Speaking before a group
• Facilitating a small group discussion
• Brainstorming new ideas with co-workers
• Participating in a heated debate

I noticed my breath slows with the energy fillers and my brain emits a tiny “yikes!” with the energy drains. What about you? Can you tell the difference?

 3. Coordinate your energy and your day. Big-ticket activities are best planned when your energy level is topped off. Write the report, hold budget negotiations, and do strategic planning when your energy is high. Research shows that decisions that need high moral considerations are strongest in the morning. And you certainly don’t want to have that high-emotion talk with your problem employee when your energy level is low (the same is true for having The Talk with your partner). Bad idea. Very bad idea. Plan routine administrative, minimal thinking tasks when your energy will be lower.

4. Balance the Big Picture. Even when you are adept at balancing daily energy, there is the week, month and year to consider. This is where I failed. I’ve been told that I put ten pounds in a five-pound bag.  Scan your monthly calendar. Is there time for the fun energy fillers? Or does work follow you home inside your computer or inside your head? Advances in neuroscience allow scientists to see that your brain keeps working on a problem when you are at the park, in a museum, listening to music, or baking cookies for the school fund-raiser. In fact, this down time is some of the most creative for your brain. Take a few pounds out of the bag to make time for the energy fillers across the week, month and year.

It’s easy to complain about having too much to do. It’s harder to commit to change. We wear our busy-ness as a badge of honor as though it is an indicator of value. It’s not. Perhaps something won’t be accomplished exactly when I want or perhaps I must make hard choices about the number of clients I can support. Whatever it is, I commit to managing my time with more balance.

Now it’s your turn. Be aware of your energy profile and your energy drains and fillers; balance each day, week, month and year. Make the commitment to always keep energy in your tank. Good luck! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take five pounds out of my bag.